Why Selfishness is Good

11 Dec 2011

written by Carolyn


Selfishness is a survival skill.  Infants are the most selfish creatures on the planet.  If they weren’t, the species would die out. 

As children mature, they become more considerate of others. But in some ways, children have it right and we adults have it wrong. We’re supposed to think of our own needs. Self-sacrifice is not a virtue – it’s hazardous to your health.

People attribute lots of behaviors to low self-esteem that are really self-sacrifice disguised as virtue. For instance, when a person, especially a woman, stays with a philandering spouse or is trapped in an abusive relationship, people will often say, “It’s because she doesn’t love herself enough.”
That may be true in some situations, but it’s not always the case. Often it’s ego that keeps women stuck in bad situations. They view themselves as indispensable, and fall under the spell of their own God complexes. They believe they are the only one who can take care of everything and everyone. They worry that if they leave, everyone – including the abusive spouse – would fall apart. In these cases, it’s hard for a woman to convince herself that it’s okay to leave.

My own mother was one of those women. She stayed in an unhappy marriage for the sake of her children, but never stopped being bitter about it. When I would complain about unreliable babysitters, my mother would always say,

“Hmpf. I never thought anyone could raise my kids as well as I could.”

My mother supported my decision to divorce my husband, but she wasn’t sympathetic to my single mother complaints about my workload. She had taught her daughters to be independent, but independence wasn’t supposed to occur at the expense of the family. She never explained to me how I was supposed to manage having a full-time job and being a full-time mom. When I complained that my ex wasn’t shouldering his fair share of the parenting load, she all but asked me, who would trust a man to raise a child, anyway?

I remember my mother spending the day cleaning, the afternoon cooking, the night cleaning and doing laundry, all fueled by the three or four cups of coffee she drank every day, including at night. She would stay up until 2 am and get back up by 6 or 7 am to see us off to school. I didn’t see the toll it took on her when I was a child, but I have often wondered, since her passing, whether or not she just physically burned herself out.

Mothers are often guilty of trying to be Superwomen. We get used to sacrificing ourselves for our children and sublimating our needs to theirs. Writer Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser referred recently to “that lack of control over the quiet, the way others really do come first—always” as her biggest parenting challenge. I agree.

For women, and especially mothers, learning to be more selfish is critical. Call it self-protection or self-interest rather than selfishness, if that makes it easier, but put yourself and your needs first on occasion, even ahead of the kids. You’ll be a better person for doing so.

4 Comments on Why Selfishness is Good

  1. Hannah

    This is a very interesting take on selfishness and self-sacrafice. I never thought of sacrafice as actually being ego.

  2. Name Dr. Goddess

    Thanks, Carolyn. I’m struggling with this with my own Mom but not in terms of staying in a marriage, just being “Superwoman,” with a strange combination of low self-esteem via self-neglect. It enrages me. It frustrates me. It saddens me to no end. I’ve had many battles with it, around it, because of it and now I have to carefully pick and choose what they will be. I’m completing a play about my Mom entitled, “She Put a Hammer in My Hand, a story about women and home improvement.” It’s taken me a long time because it’s tough to grapple with the fact that she really IS a super woman; but neither she nor any woman is Superwoman and we shouldn’t have to be. I resent the expectation, for all of the reasons you stated, and our acquiesence to it…

  3. Sarah

    So true. I learned the hard way after suffering unnecessary pain in relationships that I am not, nor will I ever be anybody’s Jesus Jr. For the longest I honestly believed I was the “giver” in the relationship, not an egotistical bone in my body. But one of the lessons hindsight taught me (and this article reiterated it) was that I was so determined to see a return on my investment just to prove to myself that I had what it took to change or “better” the Build-A-Bear men I dated. Glad to say I’m at the place where I realize because I am definitely worth an equal partner, you must come to the table fully assembled, batteries included. And if you’re not fully assembled, it’s up to God to get you there. In the meantime, I’m choosing to focus on the broken and missing places in me that need healed so I’m whole, all by myself. As always, great thought provoking post. ;)

  4. Happy Mess

    Very thoughtful post. I was told recently by a group of friends that I don’t see them enough since I got married. I fear they think I have turned into one of “those” women that abandon their friends at the first sniff of a man. That is not the case. In the last 18 months, I changed jobs, changed cities, got married and my father died two weeks before my wedding. Honestly, 2011 has been wonderful but full of new unknown experiences. It is not that I do not want to see my friends but I just need a MINUTE (or more!) to take some time for myself to get settled and to get centered. I love and miss my friends but if I am not a little selfish with my time, I don’t know if I will get through everything that I need to be physically and mentally “present” for. I appreciate this post. It made me feel better about having to take some of my time back so I could be there for ME.

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